Dialog, the 40-year-old doyenne of online information, is getting a well-deserved—and long overdue—makeover as it transitions to a new platform designed to bring it into the modern world. Officially known as ProQuest Dialog, it has some different characteristics from the first advertised “new platform,” launched in August 2010.
From a technical perspective, ProQuest has preserved nearly all the power searching capabilities of legacy Dialog, although some look a bit different. Content is a different story, as the focus moves to a more targeted user audience.
The completed Dialog makeover shows the care and attention that went into the product redesign. Dialog exemplified cutting-edge search and information retrieval in its early years. However, it sat by as Google redefined search. Its previous owners did not provide sufficient resources and seemed to be content to let Dialog slide as its star (and not just DataStar) was eclipsed by web search and competing fee-based services. Despite corporate neglect, Dialog maintained a loyal base of customers and employees. ProQuest, which became the fifth owner of Dialog in 2008, was determined early on to turn Dialog around, first by integrating DataStar into Dialog (something other owners had tried but failed to do) and then by revamping the entire system.
Subscribers will move to the new system in a staggered fashion, with an initial test group transitioning now and two other groups gaining access to the new platform this fall. The team at ProQuest tells me that my account will activate in the August–September time frame. Subscribers will have 6 weeks of dual access to legacy and new platforms to learn the new system without having to go cold turkey in giving up their legacy access. Details about and training on the new platform are available at the ProQuest Dialog Migration Center.
Technology Power Tools
Although years in the making—and with a few false starts—the result is worth the wait. ProQuest Dialog retains the power search tools of proximity, truncation, expanding, limiting, de-duplication, and sorting. Alerts, used by 40% of customers, are now optimized for customer workflows, thanks to the rebuilt engine. Search can be in basic, advanced, or command line mode. Two additional options are Look Up Citation and Find Similar (cut and paste part of a document into a large search box and ProQuest Dialog will search on that).
Advanced search provides rows for search statements to be run in specific fields and combined with multiple operators. Under the rows is the choice to retrieve only full text or peer-reviewed articles. Additionally, searchers can limit results by publication date, updates, source types, document types, and language. Searchers can sort by relevance or by publication date (both ascending and descending), choose the number of items displayed per page (10, 20, 50, or 100), and include or exclude duplicates. Search aids are also available, with links to thesauri, field codes, and search tips.
To the right of the search template is a list of 11 industries. Choose one of these and a customized template appears. For example, choosing Financial Services adds the ability to search by person, location, classification, product name, or company. The search fields that appear in the template are determined by the features indigenous to the databases included in the industry designation.
Command line searching is for those who like to build their own searches without a lot of assistance from the system. To do this well, it’s important to study the Search Syntax Conversion Guide provided on the ProQuest Dialog website. Basic Boolean search hasn’t changed much, but the truncation symbol is now usually the asterisk (*) rather than the question mark (?) although that is still used for some “defined truncation” operations, something I find rather confusing. The proximity connectors are robust but different from the legacy product syntax. Thesaurus terms use the SU prefix rather than the DE suffix.
Bound phrases that include search operators need to be within quotation marks. For example, if you want the legal phrase search and seizure, enter “search and seizure.” For the business phrase mergers and acquisitions, enter “mergers and acquisitions.” Otherwise, ProQuest Dialog will interpret the and in the phrase as the AND operator and return a large number of irrelevant hits.
In this respect, the autosuggest feature too easily misleads naïve searchers, as the exact phrase looks like what is suggested, but it actually isn’t. If it seems that autosuggest doesn’t work in your environment, you can turn it off.
Many power tools that veteran searchers know as commands now appear as search options. To the right of results are more than a dozen options to narrow results. In many respects, these mirror the RANK command in legacy Dialog. It doesn’t say, “Hey, look here, these are ranked results,” but the facets show results by, among others, most prolific author, publication title, and source type—exactly what the RANK command did, but much more obvious and not requiring a separate operation or additional cost. A graphic for publication date quickly indicates a trend line for search topics retrieved. Ranked lists can be downloaded in multiple formats.
Content Retained, Expanded, and Gone
Turning to content, ProQuest Dialog launches with slightly more than 150 databases, concentrated in four major areas: Patent and Non-Patent Literature, Pharmaceutical and Biomedical, Engineering and Technology, and News and Trade. Given these more targeted topics, it’s clear that ProQuest Dialog is moving away from the “supermarket service” that it once was.
Company directory databases, such as D&B and Kompass files, will not transition to ProQuest Dialog. Also missing are the trademark and market research files. Journal Name Finder and Company Name Finder are not included in ProQuest Dialog. It would be nice to see a complete list of databases that were in the legacy product, but it won’t be in ProQuest Dialog. That does not exist.
In some topic areas, ProQuest Dialog is expanding content. ProQuest Dialog will have the complete ABI/INFORM, which should add some 5,000 records and 2,000 titles, as well as some market research data sources. It will have full-text dissertations and the complete databases previously offered by CSA (Cambridge Scientific Abstracts) but without the deep indexing. Patent information is also growing. ProQuest Dialog will have full text and bibliographic patent files from 65 patenting authorities and patent families from Derwent, LexisNexis Univentio, and INPADOC. For news, ProQuest Dialog will replace NewsRoom with ProQuest NewsStand and keep Global Reporter and World News Connection.
ProQuest Dialog is moving to standardize company names across databases, to establish an XML gateway for patents, to provide more robust APIs (application programming interfaces), and to integrate ebrary ebooks into its content mix.
Pricing is where customers should cheer wildly. Gone are both connect hour pricing and DialUnits. Search is free, which encourages experimentation with the new platform, with search features and functionality, and with individual preferences regarding search. Without the constraints of paying for searching, the need for DialIndex disappears. Searchers are able to concentrate on what they want to accomplish rather than workarounds to minimize pricing.
What do customers pay for? Documents and a reasonably small annual fee. Transactional accounts have popups that alert searchers to document prices before they incur those costs and provide a running cost estimate for current sessions. Mousing over the Preview will show an abstract at no cost. Subscription pricing, with a flat fee for “all you can eat,” and commitment plans, which provide volume discounts, are still available.
Challenges Going Forward
The challenge facing ProQuest in its makeover of Dialog is not the technology or the content; it’s not even the pricing. This makeover is not lipstick and powder on an aging diva; it’s not merely cosmetic. It’s a true rejuvenation of a valuable search service.
The challenge is convincing loyal subscribers that the ProQuest Dialog platform can do all the sophisticated, complicated, and arcane search activities that it has become accustomed to doing. With the subscriber base declining—Tim Wahlberg, ProQuest senior vice president and ProQuest Dialog senior manager, pegged it as in double digits—the other challenge is to gain new customers, not only win back customers who have not renewed but also attract customers who have no history with legacy Dialog search.
The ProQuest Dialog team believes that the new platform can attract searchers who are at all stages of experience. It’s not solely for the highly trained information professional but also for the end user. The librarian can take on the role of administrator and trainer as well as be the search guru within the organization. ProQuest Dialog has some robust administrative tools to support librarians.
The Dialog makeover has been a long time in coming. Some doubted it could be effectively accomplished. The new platform takes an extraordinarily complex system and, without losing the complexity, makes it accessible to searchers at all levels of expertise. Now the question is whether this doyenne can regain her prestige and prominence in the information world.